Do the Laws of Armed Conflict Apply to Drug-Related Violence?

Date: 11 February 2013


Expert panelists at the second debate organized by the ICHRDP cases like Mexico’s drug-related violence pose challenges and new questions to the applicability of the International Law of Armed Conflict. This event was organised jointly by the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy,   the University of Essex, the Human Rights Institute and Rightslink at Columbia Law School.

Is the ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico rhetorical? If considered a non-international armed conflict, who would be considered as armed parties in the conflict and what would be the responsibilities on them as well as on the State-actors? Despite there being drug-related violence in other countries, the panelists focused on the case of Mexico in order to isolate it from other types of armed conflict, for example conflicts motivated by ethnic and political strife.

After giving an overview of International Humanitarian Law, Prof. Marco Prof Marco Ssassoli, academic at the University of Geneva, argued that drug violence in Mexico fits the criteria of a protracted non-international armed conflict.  Considering the intensity of violence, such as the 14,000 reported deaths and the 1.6 million internally displaced civilians, Prof. Ssasoli said that denying the existence of an armed conflict based on the political objective is not pragmatic.

Citing cases of summary executions of civilians, Prof. Ssasoli argued that this ‘is a phenomena that happens when you deny an armed conflict and set up unrealistic human rights ideals: armed forces get impatient. When they see they arrest or release judges the armed forces get impatient.’ Thus, distinguishing combatants from drug dealers civilians is essential.

Noam Lubell, Reader at the University of Essex,argued differentiation would be counterproductive because the military would be targeting poor and teenage criminals protecting the turfs while drug kingpins would be protected by immunity. 

He added that International Human Rights Law and national criminal law are more appropriate frameworks for addressing drug-related violence because drug cartels lack a political objective and they don’t have the same level of organizational structure of an armed group. In view of the latter, the intensity of violence is rather fragmented and potentially leading to impractical strategies on the ground.

Whether the armed group has a political objective was one of the issues most salient issues in the debate according to moderator Gabor Rona, International Legal Director of Human Rights First. While international law does not set it as an absolute requirement to consider drug cartels under International Humanitarian Law, one should focus on objective criteria, such as the consequences and quality of the violence.

Other salient questions in the debate where the possibility of engaging in a peace process with drug cartels, corruption, the role of governments in accepting that an armed group is merely a criminal or a party of an armed conflict, as well as the use of high-tech weaponry to target combatants. 


The Panel






Further Questions


Further Reading

Cornell, Svante E., ‘Narcotics and Armed Conflict: Interaction and Implications’ (2007) 30 Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 207.  Available in the e-library.

Glusing, Jens, 'Violence in Rio de Janeiro: Child Soldiers in the Drug Wars' ( 2 March 2007) Der Spiegel <> accessed July 16, 2013.

Hoffman, Michael H., ‘Emerging combatants, war crimes and the future of international humanitarian law’ (2000) 34 Crime, Law and Social Change, 99.  Available in the e-library.

Human Rights Watch, ‘Uniform Impunity: Mexico's Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counter-narcotics and Public Security Operations,’ (29 April 2009).  Available in the e-library.

Lubell, Noam, ‘Challenges in Applying Human Rights Law to Armed Conflict’ (2005) 87 International Review of the Red Cross, 737.  Available in the e-library.

Peterke, Sven, ‘Regulating “Drug Wars” and other Gray Zone Conflicts: Discussion Paper 2' (October 2012) Humanitarian Action in Situations other than War, International Relations Institute of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro <  ‎> accessed 14 March 2013.  Available in the e-library.

Peterke, Sven, ‘Urban Insurgency, ‘Drug War’ and International Humanitarian Law: The Case of Rio de Janeiro’ (2010) 1 Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, 165.  Available in the e-library.

Saab, Bilal Y., and Alexandra W. Taylor, ‘Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia’ (2009) 32 Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 455.  Available in the e-library.

Sainz-Borgo, Juan Carlos, ‘The International Criminal Court, Drug Trafficking and Crimes against Humanity: A local Interpretation of the Rome Statute’ (2012) 15 The Journal Jurisprudence, 373.  Available in the e-library.

Sassòli, Marco, ‘State responsibility for violations of international humanitarian law’ (2010) 84 Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge/International Review of the Red Cross, 401.  Available in the e-library

Sassòli, Marco, Antoine Bouvier, and Anne Quintin, ‘How Does Law Protect in War? Cases, Documents and Teaching Materials on Contemporary Practice in International Humanitarian Law’ (1999) 81 Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge/International Review of the Red Cross, 960.

Seagrave, Alan, ‘Conflict in Colombia: How Can Rebel Forces, Paramilitary Groups, Drug Traffickers, and Government Forces Be Held Liable for Human Rights Violations in a Country Where Impunity Reigns Supreme’ (2000) 25 Nova Law Review, 525.  Available in the e-library.

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